In case you missed it, Mark Vaughn & Matt DeLorenzo organized a memorial for the legendary Denise McCluggage on July 9th at the Shelby Museum. Please enjoy some of the wonderful testimonials that were shared below.
I got to know Denise McCluggage as a fellow automotive journalist. Though I was hardly in her league and we met infrequently, she always greeted me with a smile and a hug. I suspect she treated most everyone like that. I’m sure this warm, engaging lady made friends as easily as Carroll Shelby won trophies.
Denise was a great person just to hang out with. You could learn a lot from her, and not just about cars or auto racing. I felt honored when she agreed to partner me on several “ride and drive” jaunts at new-model press events. The best part for me was that we usually ended up talking about everything except the business at hand.
To say she had a varied and interesting life is putting it mildly, yet she didn’t to impress you with the many things she had done and the many famous people she knew. She was always “just folks:” approachable, modest, and fun. I still remember the press intro for the original Mazda Miata, when she hit a cone during a parking-lot slalom exercise and finished by deliberately knocking over the remaining cones, all the while smiling as if to say, “Well, heck, everybody goofs up sometime.”
Besides a great many friends, Denise leaves behind a superb body of work and notable accomplishments, not the least of which is pioneering the acceptance of women in both auto racing and the auto industry (she didn’t think of herself as a trailblazer, though). And, of course, we can all be glad that she started Competition Press and contributed so memorably to its Autoweek offspring.
Denise was a fine historian. By Brooks Too Broad For Leaping, a must-read selection of her Autoweek columns through the years, is a primer on the people, places and events in the world of international racing and rallying in the 1950s and 60s. It’s also a real page-turner, which says a lot about her talent as a writer.
She graciously autographed my copy of that book with just four words: ” Keep the revs up.” Thank you, Denise, for being my friend. As Duke Ellington might say, I’ll miss you madly.
— Chris Poole
It was 1986 and my son and I shared a Mercedes press car with our friend Denise as we were both covering the Mille Miglia Historica. As I recall we let her do the driving for most of the several days we were on the road. Later my son Jess said : “WOW. this lady can DRIVE. She is like a 60 year old woman going on 16!”.
And indeed she could as we were “on the door handles” most of the time (A favorite Denis Jenkinson expression)
— Jesse Alexander
She saw the road differently than you and I… and could explain it
One of the worries NASA had when men were being prepared for their first steps on the moon was How will they be able to describe it?
Simple words we all use: Amazing, Spectacular, Never seen anything like it before -(no kidding) just wouldn’t do.
Denise McCluggage was not only a highly skilled and virtually fearless driver, she was a journalist and a published writer of things unrelated to the automobile but reflective of her thoughtful impressions of her experiences. I wish she had been an astronaut.
I met her 27 years ago when she represented AUTOWEEK on the first Range Rover – sponsored Great Divide Expedition along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. As the overly eager PR guy I wanted to make sure she understood the controls of the vehicles and how we wanted the journalists to drive – meaning go as slow as possible over the rough bits as fast as necessary through the mud. I jumped in her vehicle as we headed toward Tin Cup Pass, 12,154ft.
Nearly every guy we told that to would give us a smirk and then proceed to either get stuck, not figure out how to shift the transfer case or in one extreme example, roll the car with four people on board.
But not Denise. She listened. Applied the lessons and went on to share with me stories from her childhood when she and her family would visit Tin Cup to stay with an uncle. While we were there she asked if she could stop at “Boot Hill Cemetery” (really) to see if she could find the grave marker for her great grandmother. It was the kind of request a PR guy dreams about, doing something meaningful with $500,000 worth of vehicles rather than just roll along telling war stories.
Regarding the latter, Denise preferred to discuss literature, architecture, haut cuisine in Paris and the famous men in her past: Hill, Rodriguez, Moss, Fangio and the like. Some she beat, some she chased but the stories gave me a seminar in racing lore I never expected.
If she wasn’t racing against them, she was writing about them as a newspaper journalist.
When I asked what book she was currently reading I was prepared to discuss anything by Tom Clancy. Denise, on the other hand, had just finished A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. That book, by page 25, had turned my brain to custard.
So I just shut up and watched as she navigated the rocks and boulders of the Tin Cup Trail as adroitly as the Col de Turini in the Monte Carlo Rally while explaining the mysteries of the universe for me.
You don’t “miss” someone like Denise. You celebrate the fact that you knew her – even for a brief passage of time.
— Bill Baker
Denise gone? No way…..she’s always been our eternal spirit of sports car competition; an elegant soul who was always there to tell us how it really was at Le Mans or Sebring or wherever our heroes were racing. I can’t believe she’d leave us without saying goodbye.
I was just fourteen when I first read her insider stories in Competition Press. It was seldom about who won but about the amazing characters who colored our sport. It made me want to be part of that world. I owe her so much just for that and feel sad that I can’t tell her how much her words have meant to me and all of us who love what we do. Denise always had a beautiful way of looking and writing about things so whenever we were fortunate enough to savor her latest column or maybe share a moment on the pit wall it was always something special. Denise knew everybody and everything on what was really happening in the world. Whether you ever had the privilege of knowing her or just reading her stories, Denise will remain in our hearts forever as one of the most sensitive and eloquent racer/writers the sport has ever known.
— Peter Brock
Denise was a remarkable woman. Everyone I knew loved her. She was quick in a race car, tremendously bright, consistently funny, and always positive. She was also unfailingly kind and epitomized what our mothers told us growing up: “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
These qualities made her both respected and beloved.
We will all miss her terribly.
A good example of Denise in her creative element was one of the numerous conversations we had about two books she hoped to produce (her busy schedule meant neither happened). One was a collection of her photographs, predominately racing personalities and cars of the fifties and early sixties in lush Kodachrome.
The other was to be a sequel to her compilation, By Brooks too Broad for Leaping. That title impressed me as a lovely image—poetic and evocative. I asked her about its origin, assuming she appropriated it from 19th century literature. I was chuffed to learn that it was indeed from a 19th century poem she had studied in school by A.E. Housman. I never ceased to be amazed by the breadth of her knowledge and the use she made of it.
— David Bull
I first met Denise in the early Eighties at a press launch in France (Renault, I think) while we were having cocktails before dinner and, when we were invited to sit down, I carefully maneuvered to be able to sit next to her so we could continue our conversation—which I recall had something to do with Head skis, Miles Davis and the enduring appeal of the MG-TC. I’m sorry to say I may have elbowed a few people out of the way, but I don’t think anyone was seriously injured. Only a few drinks were spilled. I’d admired Denise’s writing for years and was thrilled not only to be able to talk to her, but to find out what a truly loveable, bright and sparkling character she was in person.
I went on several press introductions after that with Denise and always tried to make sure we teamed up in the same car, partly so we could catch up on things, and partly because being a passenger with Denise driving through the Alps or around Road America was one of the great pleasures. She had a forceful, confident driving style and always knew exactly what the car was doing. She reminded me of one of my other heroes, Phil Hill, in her ability to read an unfamiliar road and adapt instantly without slowing down, sliding the back end of the car at will. And she could do this while discussing Jazz, explaining how to get rid of a headache without taking Excedrin or telling you what it was like to hang out with Moss or Briggs Cunningham. Listening to Denise always seemed to conjure up those sudden moments of reflection when you can’t believe you’re lucky enough to work in this profession.
One of my favorite moments was riding in a Mercury Grand Marquis with Denise on an intro drive from a Blues club in Chicago to Motown. She suddenly turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to meet a real grand marquis? What would he look like?” Then she chuckled and said, “I think I can picture the guy.”
That was Denise. A rare and wonderful gem of a person, and a good friend..
Barb and I will miss her tremendously.
— Peter Egan
I was privileged to call her a friend for nearly 30 years.
Our paths crossed for the first time—although neither of us knew it then—in 1955 at the SCCA Beverly Airport Races. I was there as a car-crazy 14-year old kid. Denise was on hand to report on all the heroes of that era, Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill and Masten Gregory, to name a few.
Later, she would race against them and against drivers like Pedro and Ricardo Rodrigues, Juan Manual Fangio, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Peter Collins, Briggs Cunningham, the best of that era.
Denise was the real deal; a marvelous writer and reporter, a competitive auto racer, a wicked skier, and a serious fox, to use ‘50s vernacular.
Leo Levine, one of the best and most respected car company PR directors—he was with Mercedes-Benz—and author of “Ford, the Dust and the Glroy” said about Denise, “She had an incredible intellect, a really sharp mind, not just about automobiles, but about subjects that had nothing to do with cars. She was breaking barriers before anyone ever heard of the term “women’s lib.”
Denise had a wonderful way with words, describing indoor midget racing which was popular in the early 1950s, she wrote”…some sound. Some Cars. Tearing madly around a fifth mile track in the middle of an auditorium. One front wheel was always off the ground, like a dog with a sore paw.”
She memorably described race driver Richie Ginther as being “built like a short stretch of barbed-wire fending.”
Denise was beloved and respected by all who knew her and she had a sense of humor that wouldn’t quit.
Denise had bought a Ferrari 250 SWB from Luigi Chinetti, Sr. for $9,000. That Ferrari had finished 5th at Le Mans in 1960. Denise drove the SWB at Sebring SWB to a GT Class win co-driving with Jazz musician Allen Eager in 1961. She drove 10 of the 12 hours because Eager wasn’t feeling well.
She told me “The 250 SWB was a serious machine with superb handling and wonderful manners.” She won two races in 1961 in that car, at Marlboro, Maryland and Meadowdale in Ohio. Then she had a change of heart.
“I had to sell it,” she recalled.” You see, it was not only my only car, it was my only thing. Crashing it would have wiped me out.”
Soon afterward, Denise traded the SWB to Bob Grossman for $6,000 and a used Mini.
“It seemed like a fair enough deal in the moment,” she noted. “But the last time my old SWB changed hands, I heard it went for over $100,000.” They’re worth $4-to-$5 million today.
“Well, I was born fast,” she quipped, “not quick.”
It was always fun to drive with Denise on press previews. She had a million great stories. She had to fly from Tucson and usually drove back to Santa Fe in a press car.
Late one night, she was hammering home when she saw flashing red lights in her mirror. She pulled over and was confronted by an Arizona state policeman. He quickly took in the scene, an elderly lady driver in a Mercedes-Benz.
Thinking fast, Denise said, “Officer, I’m glad you’re here. Someone just passed me in a black sedan going very, very fast. Thinking for a split second, the cop hesitated, then decided this old woman wasn’t capable of driving a car 100 miles an hour. “Ok, I’ll get him,” said the cop, dashing back to his patrol car. “Thank you sir,” Denise said sweetly and she must have smiled as the police interceptor roared off in pursuit of that unknown perpetrator. I hope you catch him” Denise muttered under her breath, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
That day she was fast and quick.
We all thought Denise would be forever…she certainly is in our hearts.
— Ken Gross
What can you say about a lady who started bungee jumping at age 70?
Denise McCluggage was a true original, the way she wrote, the way she talked, the way she behaved and the way she lived her life, nothing was ordinary. She was funny, kind and naughty. Luck was not always on her side but she took life’s ups and downs with humor and fortitude.
We have been friends ever since she and her great friend Phil Hill picked me up at the airport in Paris in 1958 to drive south to Le Mans together where we all were scheduled to race. Denise was a pioneering racing lady who was not intimidated by famous male competitors on the track, be it the Nürburgring, Sebring, Riverside or the Targa Florio. Behind the wheel of some powerful sportscars she was always a serious contender. She amused generations with her witty observations which she shared in her writings over many decades. I see her in my mind’s eye laughing with old pals, Briggs, Phil, Shelby and Stirling. We were young together, we grew old together, I will miss you Denise!
— Dan Gurney
Denise was a very special person. She was a respected race car driver, that talent showing on the many Porsche driving events she and I attended. Bob Carlson always put Denise and myself together on the driving trips which gave us the chance to talk about many topics. She had talents and insights that always sparked lively discussions. After I had received the Phil Hill award at the RRDC dinner last year, she sent me a photo collage of some photos she had taken of Phil, and signed it on the back (To my friend and driving partner). I miss her.
— Hurley Haywood
Back in the day, I didn’t know Denise as other than a polka dotted helmet whizzing by with a woman driver in it. That characterization would have royally pissed her off, so it’s probably good that we didn’t meet until decades later. By then I had matured enough to understand that gender was no grounds for discrimination, especially in motorsport; furthermore, I realized that much credit was owed her for helping to mature the male mind on that point.
Also, I admired her writing, for both its skill and the breadth of mind it revealed. And her fund of great anecdotes, well told. Her bright smile and brighter eyes. Her keen delight in new ideas. Plus, we shared a love of The Land of Enchantment.
Hold that hammer down, lady.
— Pete Lyons
Denise was always very serious about everything she did. I admired her racing talent at a time when there were few women racing drivers let alone those who could be competitive and win races like she did. When we were both racing the Porsche 550 RS, I recall comparing set-up notes and she was always forthright with her comments. Her professionalism as a driver and journalist was well-respected internationally by the best in the business.
Over the years, I enjoyed Denise’s race reporting, automotive features and columns. Her racing and automotive endeavors and industry contacts gave her unique insight for writing about them. I was also impressed with how she was quite the entrepreneur as one of the founders of Competition Press, now AutoWeek.
Denise helped break down gender barriers and will be remembered as an early pioneer of equality for women both in journalism and motorsports. I was glad to see her career accomplishments earned her well-deserved recognition as the first and only journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
She was a fast driver and an excellent writer, but she was at her very best just talking, one on one. She had that wonderful capacity for resuming a conversation exactly where it was interrupted, whether the gap was five minutes or five years.
Now I suppose the conversations are over… interrupted, this time, for good. The great stories about Phil Hill – the ones she couldn’t use in ‘Hamlet in a Helmet’ – they will go untold. Her particular take on the world that could make sense out of things others only made more confusing – that’s gone. Gone, too, is her way of laughing, as if she and you were sharing something the rest of the world had missed.
Missed – that is what she is, badly missed. —Sam Posey
I knew Denise quite well, but had never spent much time with her.
Eight years ago, instructing at a Porsche School at Barber Motorsports Park, Denise asked if she could drive the latest and greatest Porsche Turbo.
I’m not a keen passenger at the best of times, but thought, well, Denise is getting on a bit no doubt she will be happy just to cruise around.
WRONG! Denise set off, and kept going as if the Devil, or at least Stirling Moss, was chasing us!
Time and again the magic of modern traction control, stability control and ABS kept us from certain disaster.
After six hectic laps, we pulled off. Denise remarked: “not bad at all” as I heaved my nervous, perspiring body out of the passenger seat.
So Denise, you were, perhaps, a better driver than writer – and that’s saying something!
Goodbye, you will live forever in the memories of those who knew you.
— Brian Redman
Aaaah, Denise McCluggage
What a powerhouse in the world of automobile racing. I don’t think she knew she was a woman when she was succeeding at beating the boys in the ’50s and ’60s.
To say that she paved the way for women in the sport is a bit of a misnomer. If women really wanted to race they would race. If they wanted to put up with the insecurity of men and the manner in which they could demean and dispirit you if you happen to beat them to the finish line, then they would.
Many of us did. And certainly Denise did. She didn’t put up with any of that bull bleep. She just drove the hell out of whatever car she was in and did it brilliantly. And if that’s what it took to gain the respect of her peers, then she accomplished that goal.
She had many talents, and her ability to capture on paper the essence of a certain time in her life and in the evolution of our favorite pastime, sports-car racing, was unparalleled. She saw beyond the obvious.
About two years ago I went out to Santa Fe for a few days of relaxation and connected with Denise. She told me that she had just had a brain tumor removed earlier that year, and she would meet up with me the next day after her visit to the doctor.
I had last seen her at Amelia Island, where she was on a walker, moving through the halls of the Ritz-Carlton as if she were still in the Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato she drove in Sebring in 1958. So I was concerned that she may have trouble getting up the stairs of the restaurant. Wow, was I impressed when she bounced up the stairs as vibrant as ever.
Of course, she couldn’t hear a damned thing – she blamed it on never wearing ear plugs in those early days of her racing career – but she took me on a tour of Santa Fe, as it was my first visit to what was once known as the Kingdom of New Mexico. Driving her SUV, she maneuvered skillfully the sharp corners and mountain roads as if she were on the Targa Florio, providing a running commentary on Santa Fe’s history and introducing me to the roads she’d used for road testing of different cars she had written about. We also gossiped about all our old friends, alive and lost.
It was a magical day, and as we air-kissed each other goodbye, I was reminded of that wonderful voice of hers, the one I heard on the Sounds of Sebring 1958 recording I still have, saying, “It was a tiny, tiny car….” as she spoke of that Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato she raced so many years ago.
I had the privilege to meet and get to know Denise on a long-ago Mazda trip to Japan, where we bonded almost instantly while co-driving a variety of Japan-market Mazda vehicles. Regretfully, I have seen her only occasionally in recent years but have treasured every opportunity to continue our ongoing, always interesting conversation.
When Denise, as a New York Herald Tribune motorsports writer (and sports-car racer) showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to cover the Indy 500 in 1955, she was the only journalist denied access to the garage area. Because she was a woman.
“Never mind that I had credentials; never mind that I was covering for the Tribune,” she said years later. “To them, I was a woman, not a reporter.”
“If we let you in,” she was told, “we’ll have to let them all in.” She ended up interviewing drivers through a chain link fence.
Same story on race day when she climbed the stairs to the press box with Frank Blunk, her New York Times counterpart and friend: Sorry, no women allowed. “Well, this mattered,” she says today. “That’s where all the information was, that’s where Western Union was.
“Frank said, ‘Well, if you don’t need the Herald Tribune, you don’t need the New York Times, either.’ And he turned and started walking back down the steps. Well, they got on the phone, got ahold of Tony Hulman, or whoever, then made an exception and let me in.”
She was unique not only as a woman racer but also as a working journalist writing beautifully about her experiences, and among her achievements were a GT category win (10th overall) in the 1961 Sebring 12 Hour in her own Ferrari 250 SWB Berlinetta and a class win in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.